Compost Tumblers – Do They Work?

Home » Blog » Compost Tumblers – Do They Work?

Robert Pavlis

Manufacturers of compost tumblers claim that you can make compost in 2 weeks. This sounds like a really good idea. Instead of waiting for months, you have almost instant compost. Are the claims really true? How labor intensive is the process? Is it worth using a compost tumbler?

Compost Tumbler
Compost Tumblers

Compost Tumblers – What are They?

A compost tumbler is some type of container that can be turned easily. It is usually some kind of plastic barrel. Compost matures faster if it is turned on a regular basis and compost tumblers are designed to make the turning process easy – you just turn the barrel.

The Science Behind Compost Tumblers

One of the reasons compost piles are slow is that the microbes do not get enough air. By mixing up the ingredients more frequently, more air is introduced and the composting process heats up and matures faster. This is certainly sound science.

The microbes need access to a nitrogen source which they get from the greens in the ingredients. The mixing process is better at mixing the greens and browns so they are next to each other. So the microbes decompose the browns quicker.

It is certainly true that mixing the ingredients regularly speeds up composting. But is the tumbler method any better than the compost pile, if both are turned frequently?

Compost Tumbler vs Compost Pile

Mother Earth News ran some comparison tests, comparing various brands of tumblers to compost piles. They concluded that “Under our environmental conditions, both the open (hot) pile control and the tumblers yielded rich, finished compost in about 10 weeks” (ref 1).

What is important to understand in this study is that the tumblers and the piles were turned at the same frequency. If you turn your compost pile regularly it will perform just as well as the compost tumblers.

Compost Tumblers Don’t Produce Compost in Two Weeks

Claims by manufacturers of producing compost in 2 weeks is highly exaggerated. The above study found it took 10 weeks.

It is quite possible that a compost tumbler will make compost faster than a pile because you will be more likely to turn the tumbler but it will NOT make compost in 2 weeks.

Pros and Cons of Compost Tumblers

Compost tumblers do have some benefits over conventional compost piles, but they also have some disadvantages.

The Pros:

  • Turning is easier. Turning most tumblers is easier than turning a compost pile. If turning is easier you might do it more, and your compost will be ready faster.
  • Fewer rodents. Since the tumbler is a closed system, rodents and other animals will not be a problem.
  • Tidier. Some people feel it looks better. I don’t know – a big blue barrel is not exactly pretty!
  • Produces less odors, provided that the ratio of greens to browns is correct.

The Cons:

  • More Expensive. Hard to beat a pile on the ground when it comes to cost.
  • Smaller. Tumblers are limited in size – piles can be any size and can change in size as needed.
  • Moisture control is more difficult. Controlling moisture is more critical in a tumbler since it does not allow excess to leave as easily. This could be a benefit in dry climates.
  • Control of browns and greens is more critical. Too much greens and the tumbler becomes a slimy mess.

Do Tumblers Require a Compost Accelerator?

Compost accelerators, compost starters and compost activators are recommended by many manufacturers of tumblers. I guess the idea is that the container is fairly closed, and that it is not in contact with soil. Seems to make sense that microbes would have a hard time finding the composting material, and so adding a commercial compost accelerator is recommended.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

As reported in Compost Accelerators, Starters and Activators, the plant material going into a compost tumbler already has lots of microbes on it. Adding more is not required. If you feel the need, just add some old compost or soil and it will add lots of microbes. There is no need to buy compost accelerators.

DIY Compost Tumbler

The compost tumbler does have some advantages over compost piles, especially for smaller yards in urban environments. If you want to try one there are lots of DIY examples on the internet. Reference 2 has many different compost tumbler designs available.

Here is a simple design you might want to try:

YouTube video

 

References:

1) Mother Earth news Tests Compost Tumblers: http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/testing-compost-tumblers-zmaz03amzgoe.aspx

2) Lots of plans for doing it yourself compost tumblers: http://piximggif.com/diy-compost-tumbler-plans

3) Good information About Compost Tumblers: http://eartheasy.com/compost_tumbler.htm

3) Photo Source: James Emery

If you like this post, please share .......

Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

12 thoughts on “Compost Tumblers – Do They Work?”

  1. The Compostumbler you show costs a whopping $329. I had the larger size for several years until it rusted out. I replaced it, this time buying a used one for $75 rather than pay $429 for new. I do like the ease of turning, but no way does it fully compost in two weeks. Two months is more like it.

    Reply
  2. I’ve just made several tumblers out of sturdy recycled 220 litre plastic olive/wine barrels and recycled timber posts. I decided to go with the tumblers as we have two composting toilets and I hope that the tumbling process aerates, blends and breaks up the material nicely. The tumblers will also be used for kitchen scraps as the closed system will prevent rodents entering the mix. Lawn clippings, leaves etc. will still go mostly in the old compost heap (housed in half of an old galvanised water tank).

    Reply
  3. I have a compost tumbler in the Languedoc region of France. I got it because a sore back was keeping me from turning my pile often enough. My only problem is finding enough brown material to balance the green – I often get balled up compost and have to spend time smashing and breaking up the balls. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • I used to have that problem too and I just asked my various friends to save any paper they shred and I would throw some of it in. That helped

      Reply
  4. I have a “compost ball” tumbler that can be filled will grass clippings, leaves, and kitchen waste – even some paper and cardboard – and rolled around the yard. Turning the compost is so much easier than turning a pile with a garden fork. It takes more than 2 weeks but if kept turned, which I forget to do, it rots very quickly – a couple of months. It’s the oxygen that does it. I am surprised at the high cost of compost tumblers.

    Reply
    • From one of your other comments I believe you live in California – everything composts faster in hot climates. Nothing composts in 2 weeks in zone 5.

      Reply
  5. Improvised a compost tumbler with a super sturdy, perforated Rubbermaid garbage can— added the perfect proportion of carbon/ nitrogen, keep the moisture perfect, innoculated with soil, tumbled frequently each day– in September.
    After 3-4 weeks, abandoned the project… some decomp had happened, but wasnt worth the noise/hassle and ugly garbage can in my driveway

    Reply
  6. Interesting idea but I would call it either: ‘compost fun’ – for young children or ‘compost punishment’- if teenagers around…

    Reply
  7. Your picture says it all about the value of tumblers – they are great fun for children
    They might have some value but it is pure ‘snake oil’ to claim they make compost in two weeks.

    Reply

Leave a Comment